Climate summit meets pandemic insularity

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“Doomsday” is nigh, Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Monday, painting a bleak picture of a warming world, which could see Miami, Shanghai and Alexandria, Egypt, disappear under rising seas and locust swarms devour crops in the searing heat. At the start of a landmark U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where world leaders — some of them, at least — are scrambling to save the planet, Johnson warned that we are “one minute to midnight.”

His clock might be slow. It is difficult to build global consensus, even in the most dire of circumstances.

The preeminence of national self interest in the pandemic age has created good reason to fret about the climate summit’s outcome. The Glasgow summit is reminiscent of past climate summits. It has a feeling that reminds us all.

Poorer countries are insisting that wealthier ones help foot the bill for their transitions to greener economies and adaptation to climate change. Now, the biggest difference is that the cost of adaptation to climate change is rising at an alarming pace.

That the Global South must act is not in doubt. Including China, developing countries together produce the lion’s share of emissions and will chug out more as their economies expand and millions of their citizens rise out of poverty. They are playing catch up with Europe and the United States, which have emitted enormous amounts of pollution over the past century.

The world is already falling behind on pledges that were never enough to begin with. My colleagues reported that rich countries would probably not meet an earlier pledge to provide $100 billion annually in climate assistance for developing nations until 2023, and that amount that is already outdated. At a July climate meeting in London, the Wall Street Journal reported, South African Environment Minister Barbara Creecy called on wealthier countries to pay more than $750 billion annually to help poorer nations shift away from fossil fuels and protect themselves from global warming. India’s climate-change plan alone will cost more than $2.5 trillion through 2030.

What climate activists and many leaders of developing countries consider to be lackluster progress hangs heavy over Glasgow. Mia Mottley, the Barbados Prime Minister, delivered a scathing attack on the leaders of the industrialized world Monday. She asked, “Have the leaders not learnt from the pandemic?” “Can there be peace and prosperity if one-third of the world literally prospers and the other two-thirds of the world live under siege and face calamitous threats to our well-being?”

A grand solution may depend on how much the developing world is willing to budge. Many Western nations view massive transfer of funds to poorer countries in excess of $100 billion per year as unrealistic. Some of this gap may be filled by private-sector investments. But a kumbaya moment to save the world will likely require an embrace of what Stewart M. Patrick, senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently dubbed “planetary politics.”

“All governments, starting with Washington, must designate the survival of the biosphere as a core national interest and a central objective of national and international security — and organize and invest accordingly,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.

There are steps in that direction. The White House, U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon declared in recent reports that global warming would exacerbate long-standing threats to global security. However, there are many obstacles and risks to overcome.

The coronavirus era has not been a time of collective action. Masking and vaccine skepticism have complicated efforts to slow the pandemic, even as an all-out push for vaccines on the part of rich countries have left poor ones with few doses. While Americans line up for booster shots, only about 5.8 percent of Africa is fully vaccinated.

Some argue that kind of insularity was a natural response to a pandemic — and that the fight against global warning is fundamentally different.

“Fighting a pandemic by containing its spread, erecting barriers and restrictions, and protecting those inside from those outside makes a certain amount of inherent sense” wrote Stefan Lehne, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “Mitigating global warming inherently transcends the scope of national action.”

Yet the vaccine gap persists, despite the fact that a pandemic lingering in Africa or Latin America is still against the global good — and could trigger renewed spikes in the well-inoculated developed world. The world is also tainted today by inward-looking policies, deepening international rivalries and domestic polarization. A new cold war is emerging between the U.S. and China relationship. The European Union is adapting to a new reality without Britain, while some member states like Poland chafe against the notion of regional rules taking precedence over domestic sovereignty. Johnson hails Johnson’s climate summit as an example that his country is now more engaged in international affairs. However, Britain has cut its aid budget.

Many leaders — including those of Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia and Turkey — opted to skip the climate summit all together. Avoiding travel in the current pandemic is the norm. However, phoning in your support to save the Earth is a sign of a lack commitment.

There is some reason for optimism. A new BBC World Service opinion poll showed surging support among respondents in 18 countries for governments to play a leadership role in addressing climate change, to 58 percent now compared with 43 percent in 2015. But less than 50 percent of those asked in countries including China, Japan, Russia, Australia, the Netherlands and Thailand said their nations should lead in setting ambitious targets as quickly as possible.

Agreements will likely be inked in Glasgow. Experts believe that we will not see an historic moment. Barbados’s Prime Minister summed up in six words the frustration of people who believe that it is too late to act.

“Simply put, when will leaders lead?” she said.

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